Bolivia By Bus.
Budget and/or time constraints depending, a visit to Bolivia will undoubtedly see you taking the bus at some point or other. Unless you are prepared to fly everywhere, pay above the odds to be driven from A-B, or fancy ploughing through the admin minefield that would be hiring a car! Taking the bus in Bolivia is, pretty much, unavoidable.
My sister and I spent almost 200 hours on Bolivian buses in little over 2 weeks. Not intentionally, I might add – the 200 hours does include inevitable delays.
I don't want to labour the point too much, but the buses in Bolivia are fucking atrocious! If they are not hitting llamas without stopping (not even to clean the blood stains from the windscreen), or being ludicrously hot or ridiculously cold, they are more than likely going to be overrun with cockroaches, and all this is if they turn up at all.
"Will this bus ride EVER end!?"
Let me give you an example of how random the buses are… On one occasion we booked and paid for our tickets, waited for two hours at the bus station (whiling away the hours with a game or TEN of cards) only to be told 15 minutes before our departure time that there were no buses running between Cochabamba and Uyuni on that day. That we would have to take a bus to Oruro, and that we would have missed the last bus to Uyuni when we arrived at 2am. We would have to find a hostel for the night and take another bus the following morning.
Super Shit Head... the travellers friend.
Fortunately/unfortunately for Bolivia my Spanish doesn't afford me the linguistic ability to kick off to the extent I would have liked. I did, however, have a little tantrum in English, and shortly after resigned myself to the fact that this detour was our only way out. We then brought another ticket, and boarded a different bus, with the plan to worry about how we would find a hostel once we arrived in Oruro.
As the bus was leaving a guy from the original bus company jumped aboard, refunded our money and told us that he would find us in Oruro. It's was very strange and very random, and even thought I wasn’t hopefully, I will admit my heart did sink a little when we jumped off the bus at Oruro and there wasn't a soul to be seen. As we started walking in the general direction we hoped that we would be able to find a hostel at this time, our 'guardian angle' reappeared. He took our bags, made a phone call, flagged down another bus and then loaded us on before disappearing into the night... we made it to Uyuni at the scheduled time.
2am, Oruro. Mixed feelings from the team.
When we arrived in Uyuni there was a protest blocking the road and we had to cross the picket line at 5am, but that's another story... Escape from Uyuni, and a Three Day Salt Flats Tour.
Anyway... I digress. This is a blog post about Bolivia, not about buses. And the southern regions that I visited between Santa Cruz and Uyuni were pretty spectacular.
First Stop: Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
This ended up being our first and last stop in Bolivia. Known as the city of the rings, there is a network of circular streets with the Plaza 24 de Septiembre and the Catedral de Santa Cruz with double bell tower at the centre. It is has a lively tropical, laid back feel. And when my sister and I visited in December it was very VERY hot!
The Catedral de Santa Cruz double bell tower, and view of Plaza 24 de Septiembre.
We stayed with the lovely Talita and her family who we met through Couchsurfing. Talita is a tourism student who had self taught herself English so that she could have a richer and more profound experience with the travelers she meets. Her passion, drive and determination are enviable, and her hospitality was second to none. In fact, my sister would happily have been adopted into her family.
Talita spent the day with us while we were there showing us around her town, taking us to the zoo, and also introduced us to her friends in the Couchsuring community with whom we enjoyed a great evening out.
She encourage us to try the local food and drink, however I did NOT enjoy sampling the local Fernet which, although described as being similar to jäger was closer to mouth wash than cough medicine. And you really are not suppose to swallow mouth wash. We soon ditched the pint of ferNOT and opted for a more reliable rum and Coke.
The lovely Talita, and my reaction to FerNOT!
After the 40 hour bus journey to Santa Cruz from Buenos Aires some much needed relaxation and recooperation was in order and so we spent the second day at Biocentro Guembe Mariposario, a water park come resort, come relaxation heaven. Aside from the 10 different pools, there is a butterfly house, a bird sanctuary, kayaking, and mini golf all included in the entry price of price B$150 for the full day.
A day at Biocentro Guembe Mariposario.
Not technically part of the Butterfly Garden, but why not?
Our second visit to Santa Cruz was a flying visit, less than 24hours where we mainly hung out in the Residencial Bolivar Hostel with our new found friend, Mr Toucan. I have now shared hostel bathrooms with all kinds of folk on my travels, but never before have I walked into the bathroom to find a toucan drinking out of the toilet. It could have at least locked the door, or made better aim for the bowl! This is why I have made the assumption that he was male.
The hostel describes itself as ‘Bolivia’s Best Kept Secret’, but after posting a picture of myself being ever so brace with Mr Toucan, my cousin tagged me in an almost identical photo of her in the same hostel, six year earlier! Not such a well kept secret, or great minds. You decide.
"I landed in Santa Cruz from London - it was my second trip back to Bolivia. I hadn't planned anything - but I came off the flight totally jet lagged and tired and wandered around Santa Cruz and landed in that hostel!" - my cousin, Abigail.
Our story was pretty similar... can you get jet lag from a bus? I suspect you probably can in Bolivia.
A flying Visit to Cochabamba.
To break up the journey from Santa Cruz to Uyuni, we spent the night in Cochabamba. The ride to Cochabamba was the most horrific Bolivian bus ordeal of the trip, (think 13hrs, cockroaches, 35degs, no toilet stops, dead llamas). Needless to say we were glad to be off that bus.
I found Jesus in the short time I was in Cochabamba. And although I did pray on the bus journey there, I do not think that the two are necessarily related. Cristo de la Concordia located at the top San Pedro Hill, just to the east of Cochabamba. We decided to climbed the 2000 steps in the mid morning sun. Thankfully there were people selling water on the way up, and beer on the way down to help us rehydrate and of course break up the journey.
What is pretty cool about the Cristo de la Concordia is that for just B$2 you can climb up inside the statue and get a view of the city from inside the body and arms. Once you've climbed the hill, you might as well enjoy the extra bonus view.
I should add that there is a cable car that runs from the bottom of the hill for only B$10 each way. I did however feel a huge sense of achievement when I finished the climb, although at times I was ready to jack the whole thing in.
The view from inside Cristo.
Sucre at Christmas.
As had become the norm, another disastrous bus journey later, we arrive in Sucre where we would spend Christmas. When we arrived at 5am and the place was lit up like Disney land! There were big inflatable snowmen and Father Christmas'. It was quite an odd contrast to the 30 + degrees outside, even at that time of night!
The hostel were we stayed was run by a German-Bolivian couple who ran themed nights and dinners everyday of the weeks, including a typical Bolivian Christmas dinner for the guests (and whoever else happened to come along) on Christmas Eve.
After dinner they opened the 'club', where they played their entire back catalogue of cheesy songs - many of which I had forgotten even existed. There was plenty of drinking and silliness to go along with the cheesy pop hits. Once the club closed we headed to an awful, awful karaoke bar. We were pretty much the only women in there, and the only song they had that was English was Shakira's "Underneath Your Clothes" ... we decided to skip the singing.
The Christmas Eve dinner and shenanigans.
The stay in Sucre was entirely dominated by the Christmas celebrations and the subsequent hangover, but on the day that we had free to explore the city the main thing that struck me was how white everything was. Apparently all the buildings are required to be repainted every year or the owners face a financial penalty, and the result is a striking whitewash of colonial style buildings that give the counties capital a unique charm. I'd love to go back and explore properly.
By far one of the most out of this world experiences in Bolivia was the three day Salt Flats tours. And this could possibly be one of the best things that I have experienced on my South American trip so far, and possibly my life. We booked in advance and almost certainly paid a little more than the going rate, but even at the extra cost I was happy to pay as the tour exceeded any expectations. It was so spectacular that it deserves a post it's own and you can read it here: Escape from Uyuni, and a Three Day Salt Flats Tour.
Bolivia by Bus.
I cannot stress enough... the buses in Bolivia are absolutely horrendous. If they come at all, they will be late; often a cama upgrade is not available on most routes - even if you have been told there is and have paid for it. If you are of a nervous disposition DO NOT sit at the front of the bus where you can have a better view better! We made this mistake, only the once, and it resulted in 10 hours of profuse sweating and nail biting. My advice would be to bury yourself in a book, or put your headphones in and close your eyes. Ignorance is bliss in this case.
In spite of the buses, a trip to Bolivia is a must on any South American itinerary. It is worth the stress, discomfort and potential PTSD.